UK’s toughest prisons condemned for housing mentally ill

Centre for Mental Health speaks out after leaked memo

By Ian Birch

The Centre for Mental Health has condemned the use of UK’s three toughest prisons to house people with mental health conditions.

Modern Prison CellIt follows a memo leaked to The Guardian newspaper in which Claire Hodson, the operational manager at Woodhill “Close Supervision Centre” in Milton Keynes, admitted “the presence of a mental health or personality disorder is not uncommon” there.

Speaking to Mental Healthy, the Centre for Mental Health said:

“Prisoners with severe and enduring mental illness require intensive therapeutic support which is not possible in a CSC; instead they should be transferred to secure care, where they can receive specialist treatment in a secure environment.

“Prisoners with mental health problems are entitled to the same level of care and support as they would receive anywhere else and the levels of need among this group should be investigated to ensure they are receiving appropriate treatment.”

There is a government initiative known as “diversion” whereby people with mental illnesses who come into contact with the police and criminal justice system are meant to be identified and “diverted”  into secure mental health settings at the earliest possible opportunity.  Yet a Mind webpage states that 90% of the prison population have a mental health condition.

I am a human rights campaigner and I believe that, whilst deprivation of liberty is a punishment for serious offences, everyone – including convicted criminals – has basic human rights and that the most vulnerable, such as people with mental health conditions, need as much support as possible to survive in the system.  As a young BBC reporter, I visited a prison where there had been two suicides that year. 

The Centre for Mental Health gives a number of alternatives to prison as part of its campaigning work on diversion and its document, available from the website below, is split into the following areas for intervention:

  • Early intervention:  prevention,  pre-arrest,  point of arrest
  • Criminal justice decision-making:  arrest / pre-court,  bail, remand and sentencing
  • Through-care and recovery: custody or detention, release and resettlement

It is my belief that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners -- a phrase many of you will be familiar with and which I hope, in time, the government will be too.   Yes those who commit extremely serious offences should be deprived of their liberty -- but there must be no excuses for subjecting people with mental health conditions to punishing regimes to meet government rhetoric.

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